What exactly is the place for professional exclamation marks? Do they even exist? And what does that mean?
I’m a simple person. I start all my emails the same way (“Hi so-and-so,”), and I end them all the same way (“Thank you! Best, Molly). I never really thought twice about my standard email introductions and farewells—after all, isn’t it the content between the two that matters? That is, I never thought about it until a professor last year told my class to never, ever use exclamation marks in professional emails. She claimed that it made young adults (especially young women) look immature, over-eager, and unintelligent.
That comment took me completely by surprise and caused me rethink my entire professional writing style. Does a single exclamation point convey reasonable excitement or does it damage whatever professional front I’m expected to put up? Let’s discuss…
What’s The Big Deal About Exclamation Marks?
The period is versatile usage-wise in that it can be used after virtually any statement sentence. But the biggest issue with the professional exclamation mark lies in the fact that it is emotionally versatile—it can be used to convey excitement, urgency, anger, confusion, happiness, sadness, and so on. So the primary argument against the use of exclamation marks in professional writing is that it can be vague or nuanced in meaning.
However, I would like to pose the counterargument that in many cases, the use of an exclamation mark is clear—it simply depends on context, whereas periods do not. When an exclamation point follows a statement of obvious anger, the exclamation point highlights the meaning of the statement and avoids any passive-aggressiveness that a period might convey.
In short and literal exclamations like “Wow!” or “Thanks!”, the exclamation is much less noticeable and much more clear than a single, dead-end period, which more and more often is seen as negative: “Thanks.” Sends your stomach coiling, right? The same goes for longer sentences of appraisal: “Thanks for getting this to me.” feels like your boss thinks you took too long, but “Thanks for getting this to me!” makes it clear that you are genuinely appreciative. In these cases, it simply signifies an exclamation of clear excitement.
That note brings me to my next point: Is there something wrong with excitement in the workplace? Every boss should want their employees to look forward to their jobs (in an ideal world, of course), so why is it not okay to express it?
The Gender Issue
Unfortunately, gender plays a major role here. Exclamation marks connote excitement, and somewhere along the line, we decided to connote excitement with immaturity. And is it men or women who are more often patronized and accused of immaturity in the workplace (and everywhere)?
…Exactly. Women already have such a difficult time being taken seriously in many (male-dominated) work spaces, so it seems logical that women should take aims to avoid doing anything that suggests emotions, such as crying at work or something as minor as an exclamation point in a work email. And that’s exactly the “advice” my professor was giving us. But while the advice is somewhat logical, it’s still problematic.
By instructing women to do or not do certain things in the workplace implies that the workplace is not a female-intended place, that women must somehow change in order to be successful professionally. Sure, the traditional 20th century business office (think: the desk with the potted plant and water cooler chats) wasn’t made with women in mind, but fortunately the world is changing and, with the rise of the equal rights movement, becoming more inclusive and diverse. It should be the workplace that changes to accommodate women, not just the other way around. We shouldn’t see “feminine” traits, like showing emotions, as negatives. Instead, we should be encouraging men to free themselves of the restrictions of toxic masculinity.
So… Do I Use An Exclamation Mark Or Not?
Sorry, I’ll stop beating around the bush and get to the (very anticlimactic) answer of “should I use exclamation points?” is it’s up to you. I mean, I wouldn’t go crazy and use an exclamation in every sentence, because that just makes! You! Sound! A little bit! Like! This! But also don’t be afraid to show enthusiasm and excitement in your emails, especially if discussing a new job or opportunity or something you’re passionate about. Higher-ups like that. Think of how you would react if the interaction was happening in real life: what would your voice sound like as you gave your genuine answer? Did a coworker do something nice for you? “You’re so kind!” Did you land the dream job? “Thank you for this opportunity!” Keep it simple and be professional; it’s that easy.
TL;DR Yes, professional enthusiasm does exist and one or two exclamation marks in an email does not (and should not) determine your immaturity or your ability to do your job. The world has bigger things to worry about.